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A Generation Before ‘On the Road,’ This Classic Championed the American Road Trip

‘Free Air’ was a classic of the interwar generation

American authors were quick to recognize the lure—and the narrative convenience—of the open road. (Flickr)
smithsonian.com

The cross-country road trip has always been a particular American fascination.

On this day in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation saga On the Road was first published by Viking Press. Although its initial reception was lukewarm, the novel gained extreme popularity and has gone down in history as an American classic. But it wasn’t the first road trip novel to take the country by storm. That honor might belong to Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air, published a generation earlier.

The novel, which was published as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919, helped shape the new genre of road trip novels as well as capturing a view of America in a moment when automobile travel was still achieving the status it enjoys today. Free Air focuses on a young pair named Claire Boltwood and Milt Daggett who meet while Claire, a wealthy woman from Long Island, is on a cross-country road trip to Seattle with her father. Milt is a garage mechanic in the Midwest.

“Like many Northeasterners, Claire believes that the rest of the country is filled with folks who are good but simple,” writes Steven Michels for The Public Domain Review. “Milt knows better. He had been plotting an escape from its dreary doldrums, but is enthralled with Claire when she comes through town, and he ends up following her and her father on their journey west.”

Like many other road trip narratives before and since, writes Michels, the novel is a meditation on freedom and the meaning of Americanness. Milt and Claire eventually discover that Seattle isn’t unique at all. It is full of people trying to imitate East Coast styles and competing over whose house has the best view. In the end, he writes, they head back out on the open road, the only place they can be free.

Free Air was preceded by 1912’s On the Trail to the Sunset, another cross-country road trip novel featuring a couple who meet while finding freedom on the road, writes literature scholar Ann Brigham.

But even as the American road trip was being written, the American road system romanticized by Sinclair, Kerouac and others like John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nobokov was changing. “In the same year as Lewis’s novel, the U.S. Army sent a cross-country caravan to demonstrate the power of the automobile and the need for a national road system, which was demanded by a modern military that needed transportation arteries to rapidly mobilize anywhere in the country in the event of an attack,” writes literature scholar Joshua Schuster.

On that transport was a young Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would remember it as president when he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, laying the groundwork for the interstate highway system, Schuster writes, “forever changing the conditions of the American road trip.”  

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